Thursday, April 04, 2013

What's in the class?

Yesterday, the BBC ran an article about changes in the British class structure; how the basic division into three classes was hopelessly outdated and five wasn’t enough either. They defined seven classes and offered a handy test, too, so that everyone can check for themselves to which class they belong.

I’m not British and their class structure baffles me somewhat. However, as I took the test myself, I realised that I seemed to have a very firm view about different classes. A lot of it comes from British TV; my notions of the British working class are based on various sit-coms and of the aristocracy on Jeeves and Wooster, among other things. But a great deal of my understanding comes from books.

I don’t think I’ve read a book that would represent the British society in its entirety, describing each class from within as they are, or as their members understand them. I’ve read historical books that describe upper and middle classes, with members of the lower classes appearing as side characters that serve to highlight the excellence of the upper classes. And I’ve read modern books where the point of view is that of the lower classes or where the class structure isn’t acknowledged at all, either because the writer doesn’t want to, or because it’s so self-evident it doesn’t require pointing out. It’s up to the reader to notice the social clues. And despite never having lived in Britain, I’m able to do so – at least to an extent; the rest of the time I’m very confused.

Perhaps, then, all British literature is about class? In which case, it wouldn’t matter which book I picked up for an article about class. Dickens would be an obvious choice, but there is another great writer of the social novel who I happen to like better: Elisabeth Gaskell, and especially her book North and South (1855).

I first found Elisabeth Gaskell in the early 2000 after seeing a BBC series based on her book Wives and Daughters and proceeded to read that and her other work. Admittedly, when I first read North and South, I read it as a romance. The wonderful love story of Margaret Hale and John Thornton simply went before everything else. It wasn’t until I saw a TV series based on the book and read it again that I paid proper attention to the social issues it addresses: women in the Victorian society, religion and the lack of it, and overcrowding of towns and the expansion of the poor. And I especially paid attention to the changing class structure.

The obvious division in North and South is between the rich and the poor, the upper classes and the working class; John Thornton and other cotton mill owners against the poor labourers. But equally important division, and one that brings to the fore the changes that were taking place in British society because of the industrialisation, is that between John and Margaret, two people seemingly of the same class. He is new money with little culture and sophistication, she has the latter, but no money. His family looks down to hers because they deem her useless, and her family, while not as vulgar as to hold themselves openly better, nonetheless find it difficult to relate to people so very different from themselves. Added to that are Margaret’s attempts to understand and help the poor labourers who she finds unwilling to accept her help, a feature that baffles her greatly.

What perhaps comes out best in the book is the pride each class has, either for their status – earned or inherited – or for being able to manage despite the restrictions of their birth status. British society may have changed so much in a hundred and fifty years that new divisions are needed, but it seems to me that that characteristic at least hasn’t changed.

The new classifications the BBC introduced aim to bring down the barriers, mix things up a bit and offer a class to belong to for those that haven’t had an obvious place for themselves. Will it catch? I have no idea. However, I’m fairly sure that an outsider such as me will have even more difficult time understanding the British class structure with the new system than before. Luckily, there are books. With them, I can stubbornly hold on to the old, to the way things have ‘always been.’

And here's the other reason for choosing North and South. A short clip, for the ladies: